Ken Grimes at Intuit, The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
Listen to late night talk radio and you’ll find a world full of believers in alien abductions, government-sponsored conspiracies and messages from the beyond. And although I only partake in these theories as I’m drifting off to sleep, the passion which some people have over these issues has never managed to stay with me past those few moments of borderline consciousness. When it comes to extra-terrestrial life and related matters, it seems that people tend to fall into three camps: the non-believers, the passive listeners, and the fervently convinced, eager to educate others, often with a slew of evidence of both the scientific and historical kinds. There is a real infrastructure to what some may consider pseudo-science, and there are proponents of alien-related theories who hold degrees, speak at conferences, and actually write books that sell.
What a few years of (occasionally) tuning into late-night radio has taught me is that, believe what you may, the cultural phenomenon surrounding life in space is powerfully attractive, and possibly growing. It was just a few weeks ago that the city was abuzz with news that over a dozen O’Hare employees reported seeing a flying saucer in the skies above Concourse C of the United terminal. The truth is: people get excited over the possibility that we’re not alone. And although NASA’s reputation is not what it once was (as recent events have shown), there have been serious efforts on behalf of our government to communicate to other beings out there. (Carl Sagan helped send a recording into space with greetings and information about Earth in hopes of prompting communication.)
Let me reiterate that I fall into the category of the passive listener. Kenneth Grimes, however, is one of the convinced, and his current show at Intuit reflects his belief that, if we knew what he knows, the world could drastically change for the better. Representations of other-worldly existence are hardly new; you need only look at Byzantine paintings to see visions of spirits floating down from the heavens bearing celestial messages. Religious icons continue to serve useful purposes, reminding us that human existence is but one part of the universe, and Hieronymus Bosch was one of many who painted fantastical creatures colliding with humanity. It is difficult not to see the resemblances between these traditions and Grimes’ work, even if his subject matter is focused on extra-terrestrials, telepathy and radio signals received from outer space.
Grimes began to investigate and document abnormal events in his life after an incident in 1971, when, amidst a gathering for a state lottery in Cheshire, Connecticut, he attempted to telepathically influence the outcome. Although he didn’t win the prize, a Kenneth Grimes in Cheshire, England, won on the same day the largest soccer lottery in British history. Since then, his life has been influenced by the many coincidences of this sort that he sees in his life and in the events surrounding him. The records of his perceptions are made manifest in his large-scale paintings, of which 20 hang at Intuit.
His stark, black and white paintings range from serene landscapes to text-filled diagrams explaining how crop circles are created. An example of the former is Untitled (Alien park). Think of Keith Haring painting a 17th century Dutch village, complete with spires, hills, a fountain, and (this is where the Haring similarity ends), an inconspicuous, tiny figure that reveals itself to be an alien. There is no telling in Grimes’ work. He is showing us what could be, and. like the tiny alien in the corner of an otherwise banal landscape, he is hinting to us that we might be missing something. A particularly poignant example of this kind of work is Untitled (Levels of control). A small figure hovers in mid-air, attached to a galaxy-like swirl in the upper corner. The figure is emitting a beam to a satellite, which is connected to humans in descending size, who seem to represent generations as they reach out to each other. The busy hatch-marks that serve as the background give an air of tension and unease to the piece. The figure is most likely an alien, but the message, “Levels of control,” is poetic in its applicability to the human condition, or, as Grimes sees it, to the way humans have ignored the messages we have received.
For Grimes, painting is a way to communicate information; the white on black format is earnest, sincere, and unflinchingly direct. Untitled (Alien entities) presents twelve types of aliens “who have been seen visiting our planet.” The simplistic renderings are not unlike mug shots, but they also resemble touching testimonials of celestial icons, derived from Grimes’ singular belief system.
As with most belief systems, threats lie in wait for the non-believers. In Untitled (We must go to mars), a thickly painted ominous black mass dominates the surface of the painting, squeezing out the sliver of a scene Grimes allows us. In the scene, two planes are headed for collision, the only thing standing in their way are two satellites, hopeful reminders of what could have been if we had left Earth in time. Nearby, an upside-down figure is speared in the chest by a spiky-haired attacker. Underneath, the words, “If we don’t go to mars [sic],” are written in skinny, upper case letters, imparting urgency to Grimes’ already terse visual message.
These apocalyptic reminders of primitive violence aren’t all made-up stories; many are based on research done by Grimes himself. He focuses on radio transmissions received by a star named Epsilon Eridani, the significance of triangles in alien-human relations, and other wide-ranging evidence of life in space. Painting is an extension of this research, and it is important for his audience to understand his basic aims. To be able to communicate with extra-terrestrials, Grime says that we have to “think very basically—very universal concepts—we have to have visual objects[sic]. Not a wavelength so much as a shape, a common denominator of a shape like a ball, like even a tennis ball.”
Grimes’ simplified story-telling technique is contrasted with overarching, life-threatening themes, such as in Untitled (Japanese deflected asteroid). The text beneath reads, “A 50 m diameter Japanese deflected asteroid about to impact Washington with the force a 1000 atom bombs [sic].” Despite the almost didactic nature of Grimes’ paintings, there is an intensely personal aspect to what he wishes to share with us. At Intuit, a binder is included as part of the exhibition, containing detailed documentation of every coincidence, article and personal revelation that Grimes has experienced over 25 years of research. In these pages there is a sort of diaristic narrative of Grimes’ life; indirectly, we find out his favorite bars, which jobs he has held, and what life is like at Fellowship Place, the community in which he lives in New Haven. The intersection between these microscopic details and the universal nature of his paintings adds a complex dimension to the aim of his work. Although he prefers to be called a “visionary artist,” Grimes is essentially trying to do what most artists strive for: to pose the right questions in the right way in order to bring about change.
Charles Russell of Rutgers University will give a lecture on Grimes’ work, “Personal Vision/Collective Obsession: Alien Contact in the Art of Ken Grimes and Contemporary Culture” at Intuit (756 N. Milwaukee) on Saturday, March 10 at 6 p.m. The exhibition is on view until April 27.